When The Doors first formed in 1965, starting a song with a lightning crack and an apocalyptical atmosphere was out of the question, but that would quickly change in a wave of revolution. As Jim Morrison said long before the band arrived at the masterpiece of L.A. Woman: “I’m interested in anything about revolt, disorder, chaos, especially activity that appears to have no meaning. It seems to me to be the road toward freedom.”
Morrison’s final act with The Doors, before dying at the tragically young age of 27, was, at least chronologically, ‘Riders on the Storm’, and it epitomised both Morrison’s iconoclastic mantra and The Doors’ unique rock mysticism. With the evocative image of a road-weary traveller, the band crafted an atmospheric masterpiece that housed more imagery than the Museum of Modern Art.
The song began as a jam of ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’, a country tune that was originally written by Stan Jones and depicts a coterie of curse cowboys forced to ride horseback through the sky for tortured eternities. While The Doors may have taken the song in an entirely different direction thereafter, this brooding sense of epic Western theology remains. In fact, few songs in history conjure up a landscape with as much immediacy as ‘Riders on the Storm’ as it draws upon the stark Midwest’s dusty haze.
Screenwriter Eric Red recognised the cinematic overture of the song and used it as the inspiration for his own project. Red tells DVD Active that the song was the main influence on the 1986 film The Hitcher: “I thought the elements of the song – a killer on the road in a storm plus the cinematic feel of the music – would make a terrific opening for a film. I started with that scene and went from there.”
The song itself contains references to the homicidal hitchhiker Billy Cook who killed six people as he made his way between Missouri and California. His grisly story is not all that different from the plot to The Hitcher, the official logline of which reads: “A young man who escapes the clutches of a murderous hitchhiker is subsequently stalked by the hitcher and framed for his crimes.” The eighties thriller starring Rutger Hauer and Jennifer Jason Leigh is now somewhat of a cult classic.
Interestingly, it could be said that the song itself was inspired by a movie in the first place, too, albeit one crafted by Morrison himself. In summer of 1969, two years before ‘Riders on the Storm’, Morrison created the film HWY: An American Pastoral, whereby he portrayed a hitchhiker pondering the ways of modern American society, as life and landscaped unspooled around him in a somnambulant saunter, that turns out, by the last act, to be more deeply immoral.